Memo for the PM’s Journey to Brussels

Posted on 18 February 2016 by John Curtice

Doubtless the Prime Minister will have had plenty to read on his journey to today’s vital European Council meeting in Brussels. Most of his reading material will, of course, have been about the stances of his fellow leaders on the outstanding issues in the renegotiation and how their concerns might be met. But maybe also amongst his papers there was a resumé of where the polls appear to stand, and how he needs to play his hand during the next coupe of days order to maximize his chances of winning the referendum back at home. Here, perhaps, is what it might say.

  1. The publication  of the draft renegotiation agreement at the beginning of this month has failed to move public opinion in favour of staying in the EU. Of the four companies that have polled voting intentions in the referendum both before the publication and since, two (ICM and Ipsos MORI) suggest that the balance of opinion on whether to vote to Remain or to Leave is more or less unchanged, but two (YouGov and ComRes) have identified quite a marked decline (of some 4-5 points) in the level of support for Remain. YouGov claim that support for Remain has declined in Wales too. Getting a deal done in the next two days will not necessarily ensure the polls swing dramatically in your favour.
  2. Voters appear inclined to feel that the draft agreement represents a bad deal, and have little confidence that you will end up with a good one. Opinium report that only 17% think that the likely deal is a good one, while 42% reckon it is bad. At 22% and 46% respectively YouGov’s figures are much the same. Not even Conservative voters, many of whom as you are well aware are still inclined to vote to Leave, have been that impressed by what you have achieved so far. Meanwhile, Ipsos MORI claim that only 34% are confident that you will get a good deal (up just three points in last month before the publication of the draft agreement), while 62% are not confident. ComRes’ figures are similar – only 21% think you will get a good deal, while 58% believe it will not be. Of course, low expectations may be to your advantage if you manage to exceed them – but it looks as though you cannot afford to give much ground in your discussions with your fellow leaders.
  3. Scepticism about Europe is widespread. Even though on balance they were more inclined to vote to Remain rather than Leave, respondents in the UK to Lord Ashcroft’s recent EU-wide polling exercise found it easier to state what they thought were the disadvantages of being in the EU than what they thought the benefits were. Even amongst those who are broadly favourable towards EU membership, only 12% did not name any disadvantages, while no less than 43% of those who feel negatively about Britain’s membership of the EU felt there were no benefits at all from being a member. Remain voters – many of whom are concerned about immigration just as most Leave voters are – may need quite a lot of reassurance during the next few weeks.
  4. The issue that works best to your advantage is the economy. However, it may not be working to your advantage as much as you would like. ComRes report that this is the most important issue for Remain voters, yet many remain to be convinced that Britain would actually be better off staying in the EU. True, last month ComRes reported that nearly twice as many (44%) reckoned it would be better for Britain’s economy if the country remained in the EU than if it left (23%). But that still meant that more than half were seemingly unconvinced of the economic case. Then this month, ComRes asked a different question and found that while 39% thought the economy is better off for being part of the EU, as many as 36% thought the economy would be better off if we left. Equally. Meanwhile, although YouGov have persistently found that more think that Britain would be worse off economically if we left the EU than believe we would be better off, the difference in the level of support for the two points of view (most recently, 27% to 32%) remains a narrow one. Your efforts in the next 48 hours may help assuage voters’ concerns about immigration and sovereignty, but ultimately it is the economic argument that you will need to win.
John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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